Update 2/13/13: The Rutba House, an intentional Christian community in Durham, is also asking for the repeal of Ordinance #14375 and will be praying for our homeless friends and City Council as their Lenten discipline. Read more here:
Update 2/13/13: Four Masters of Public Policy students at Duke researched best practices regarding panhandling ordinances and wrote an advisory paper for the City of Durham last spring. The City of Durham has done exactly opposite of what they recommended. Read the summary here:
Executive Director Carolyn Schuldt was silenced by City Council members while delivering this response at the Council Work Session on Feb. 7, 2013.
For event coverage:
For a link to our petition asking that Ordinance #14375 be repealed:
View full text of the ordinance:
I am Chaplain and Executive Director of Open Table Ministry, a Christian non-profit working among the unsheltered homeless, desperately poor, and most vulnerable citizens of Durham. We believe that reaching across the issues that divide us not only supports individuals on their journey toward long-term health and wholeness but also strengthens and enriches all of the Durham community.
As a woman of faith and Christian leader, you would probably expect me to take this time to remind you of the ancient law to be “openhanded to the poor” (Deut. 15:11) or Jesus’ teachings of our accountabilities for “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). I won’t belabor the points of which you are already aware. Rather, I will use these few minutes to share some things you may not know:
First, I need to contradict a commonly held belief that all beggars are lazy and choose to live a life with no rules. The truth is that out of all the beggars, solicitors, tramps and sign “flyers” I have come to know over the years, I have never met one who chose to make a living standing in the median. It is humiliating, frustrating, demeaning work, done out of necessity by those with no available alternative. For every man and woman I have known, this level of poverty and desperation is not a choice.
While ordinance #14375 does not outlaw begging or roadside panhandling, it makes it nearly impossible. Prohibitions include “sitting, standing, and walking on medians” (section 1), being “on an access ramp” (line 169), and being “within 100 feet of [a] bridge” (lines 170-171). Additionally, solicitors must be “on one-way street” (line 97), they must stand “on a paved sidewalk” (line 85), and what is received must be from “a passenger (not the driver)…on the right-hand side of the motor vehicle.” There are very few locations in Durham that are within these constraints. None are convenient or profitable, and without a car or internet access, they are nearly impossible to find.
Ordinance #14375 does not address the real issues. We share the concerns of the City Manager of safety, littering and citizen complaints. Most panhandlers follow the very specific rules received when purchasing their city solicitation permit. Very few break the law, and the guilty persons should be cited. Safety is very important, and the requirements of daylight and reflective vests are effective. None of our homeless men or women have been lost to vehicle accidents.
Men and women who stand on the corners often assist disabled motorists, aid emergency and law enforcement personnel or spend hours every day picking up litter left by others. Basel Hayes is a military veteran with traumatic brain injuries who ‘flies a sign’ in the median near Parkwood. He has been a fixture there for years, spending hours every day picking up trash along roadways. He uses the money he collects from motorists to supplement his Disability income to pay his rent and other needs. This ordinance punishes him and the entire community for the unlawful activities of a few others.
Some of our population is very sick. Some are addicted to alcohol. Some use drugs. Some suffer from severe and persistent mental illness. Some will die this year. Most do not meet the criteria required for services or are too ‘at risk’ to be helped by the agencies designed to serve them.
We stand in solidarity with all organizations striving to improve the lives of homeless people. We want to work with, not against, anyone trying to bring hope and justice to the people forced to live in the horrid conditions of poverty. The fact that we use different strategies to address those circumstances does not diminish our united front against it.
We serve people who are not shelter-ready or shelter-interested. One shelter in Durham requires a photo ID and signed contract for a 40-hour work week to stay. The latter is not an option for people with disabilities. The other shelter is developing wonderful programming designed to move people forward, but what about those too anxious or too ill to sleep in a room with 50 other people? What if PTSD wakes him screaming in the night? What if it takes longer than the 60-day maximum stay to implement a plan? What if you are a felon? What if you are a woman? There is simply no room for you. The waiting lists are long, the system is very complicated and services are shrinking further. What is a poor person to do but to sleep where they can and fly a sign until they are somehow found eligible?
Robin has congestive heart failure, is hard of hearing, has difficulty breathing when she moves, and because of budget cuts and the mental health merger, she is on her third care provider in 10 months. We are grateful that the Alliance provided funds to pay two month’s rent on her small apartment to get her out of the woods because of her very fragile health. Her disability application has been lost, referred, re-filed, delayed, denied, reviewed and appealed…and she still waits with no income. Her boyfriend flies a sign to try to raise the money for their rent and sometimes can pick up a little work that way. He was pleased at first because the police officers were kind and waved or chatted with him as usual, despite Ordinance #14375. The next day, they were forced to warn him. The third day he was cited. He will not be able to pay the fine. She will be evicted March 1.
Sparky quietly flies his sign every morning from about 7:30 to 10 a.m. He stands on the median at New Hope Commons. He has regulars – people who come by to see and talk with him, and give him a few dollars before the light changes. Crippled by the arthritis in his back, he’s been living in a tent in the woods with his dogs for more than 20 years, buying a few groceries at Kroger or Walmart, unseen the rest of the day. At age 63 with no family, having never worked beyond the dairy farm where he grew up, what is he to do now? How will he sustain himself?
Open Table has witnessed and facilitated amazing and successful transformations – men and women who are now in permanent supported housing, reunited with family, gone back to school, landed good jobs, living independently as productive members of our community and others. These changes take time…time to think, time for treatment, time to heal. The journey is long, it is private and it is painful. Support received by flying a sign gives needed time.
Ordinance #14375 decreases the visibility of an already marginalized group of people. Some think of these neighbors as a nuisance, a distraction, or an inconvenience. Pushing them out of public view does not make people disappear. The Mayor’s State of the City Address on Monday night spoke of hope for a better life for all of the citizens of Durham. The men and women who hold a sign on the roadside are citizens of Durham who are facing overwhelming circumstances.
They have been part of the labor force. They are construction workers, beauticians, landscapers, chefs, real estate agents, EMT’s, electricians, loggers, mechanics, retailers, waitresses and military personnel who can no longer work. These men and women are not an eye-sore or a blight on our fair city. They are daughters, mothers, brothers, husbands and sons who are separated from all family support. Their names are Donna, John, Aaron, Jody, David, Carl, Todd, Mark, Cathy, Joe, Larry, Claude, Sparky, David, Donnie, Dawg, Heavy, Cam, Roger, Greg, Tammy. They are people. They are not those people, they are our people, they are citizens of Durham. Some of those who, with God’s help, will have a better life as well.
I am asking. Yes, I am a beggar too. I am asking you to show mercy on these neighbors we are called to love. Please repeal ordinance #14375.
For a link to our petition asking that Ordinance #14375 be repealed:
Open Table Ministry seeks to provide a faithful response to and enhanced understanding of homelessness in our community, and to guide homeless people towards long term health and wholeness by building relationships, meeting practical needs, and connecting with existing community resources.